William James’s Thoughts and Ideas on Religion and Psychology

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William James’s thoughts and ideas on religion and psychology, and how the two intercross were evident in his lectures. In some ways it felt like he addressed religions nature and sciences indifferences. James’s many case studies served as strong empirical evidence regarding the impact of religious experiences. The lectures analyzed religious experiences using scientific research about them to demonstrate that they were, in fact, real. Why? Because most humans have a substantial desire for transcendency. He recognized that there were many forms of religious spirituality to examine; and the review of these was equal to human nature. He even alluded to this in his choice of subtitle, A Study in Human Nature. In James’s effort to explain the word religion, he explains that it is not his desire to focus on the spiritual universe of religion; but rather on examining experiences which may be considered of the religious nature. James was determined to “rehabilitate the element of feeling in religion” (110). His pragmatic view, at its core, revealed that in religion one would find truth.

The nature of our world was, in his opinion, both objective and subjective. The objective being the total understanding we may be thinking at that moment; this is the superficial world which is bigger than us. The subjective, or our “inner state”, whereby, the thinking actually takes place within our present surroundings. He used cosmic time and space to symbolize the objective and the subjective was characterized as measly engagement in activities of the mind. James states that, “The sciences of nature know nothing of spiritual presences” (106) Science dismisses all personal connection and its orientation to the effects human beings and their fears or apprehensions. James shared not only his own experiences; but those researched by other religious scholars and religious psychologists as well, to support his arguments. Throughout the lectures he actually denounced the ideas of some of those scientists, however, for not thoroughly examining all of reality. He inferred that they disregarded certain unrevealed conditions of the universe. James wanted to show that mystical experiences could be realized by using psychology rather than trusting in supernatural reason. Arguing that we may, at times, delve into another dimension altogether where we are much more in touch with our inner personal being. Furthermore, that this mystical region is not just a perfect place, it also impacts us by the effects that it generates. Science requires that more than just phenomena is present in order explain something, its absence renders it fruitless. James drew from his wisdom of both psychology and neurology; understanding that religious experiences could be considered a wonder of the human mind. However, it was possible that the human mind was not the sole influence; but that supernatural elements could impact our experiences as well. As a christian, I would agree with James that our higher power in this universe is God. Similarly, I agree that when we commune with God and seek his will for our lives, we become vulnerable to his mercies and experience his omnipotent power in our lives helping us to fulfill our true destinies.

James was not focused on the theologies, rituals and attitudes of religion; instead, he argued that we should be more concerned with examining the actions, and emotions of how religious experiences impacted individuals. Additionally, he argues that no two individuals have the similar difficulties, therefore, to presume that we would have similar conclusions would be absurd. During this time, one idea was that religion was a thing of the past, or in survival mode, something mankind had outgrown. James refers to this as the “Survival Theory” which he actually refutes after explaining. First he argues that individuals devout in their beliefs, stand firm that there is a higher power in the universe, who is God, and He is benevolent to all mankind. These people describe a sense of security and release when they surrender to the will of God. The personality of these experiences is pivotal for these religious people. “To-day, quite as much as at any previous age, the religious individual tells you that the divine meets him on the basis of his personal concerns.” (107) James describes that those who live religious lives are far more likely to be better servants than others who are simply knowledgeable of it. Second, James argues that scientists are “dogmatic” and materialistic when evaluating the criteria to judge the veracity of religious experience. For these people, the effort to discredit religious experience is unique. Some would dilute religion down to an expression of a physical disability or mental illness, some even said sexual dysfunction. He also referred to men with sick souls as men who existed pre-religious experience; or, who had not found salvation and deliverance. Whereas, healthy-minded is the state of the redeemed; or those who experienced a very personal relationship with God and thereby experience salvation from immorality.

I would argue that James was trying to persuade us that our individual nature of happiness must be linked to our personal destiny. Because he believed that our conduct is influenced by our constant thoughts and our feelings. Religious theory was secondary at this point. He defined what feelings were and the psychological sequence they are a part of. One of the scholars he cited was Kant, who referred to our emotions with a fortifying and joyful outcome that stimulates our personal energy. James went on to teach that, “emotion overcomes temperamental melancholy and imparts endurance to the Subject, or a zest, or a meaning, or an enchantment and glory to the common objects of life.” (111) This is called our faith-state; and when it is effected in a deep-rooted favorable way it can explain the devotion exhibited by believers of their faith. I would argue that our prayerful communication with our higher power, or God, is the tie that binds our humanness with His patient direction. James spoke about prayer in the traditional sense, as well, as a by means of reflection and meditation. Prayer also has a way of connecting us to God, and can give us the feeling of being safe and secure under His loving protection. I would say that religion in its purest sense makes us feel like life, for its follower, worth living.  

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William James’s thoughts and ideas on religion and psychology. (2021, Mar 31). Retrieved November 30, 2023 , from

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